Editor's Note : This collection of 25 essays by geographers and anthropologists is part of an ongoing dialogue on volumetric sovereignty, launched in 2017/18 with 26 essays in Cultural Anthropology. These two series will also be accompanied by a book, under contract with Duke University Press and with a planned publication date of 2020.

he last five years have witnessed a veritable efflorescence of publications on the topic of volume. A seminal intervention that appears to have given the impetus for much of this “volumetric turn” was Stuart Elden’s 2013 paper, Secure the Volume, in which he argued for the necessity to rethink geography in terms of volumes rather than areas. While Elden was not the first scholar to draw attention to volumes—indeed Elden’s article quotes an extensive literature engaging with spaces beyond the surface—he was nonetheless instrumental in identifying commonalities shared by scholars interested in aerial spaces, such as Peter Adey (2010), Derek Gregory (2017),  or Alison Williams (2010), and subterranean realms, like Eyal Weizman (2007) or Bradley Garrett (2013). Elden’s work served to integrate these various strands into a more comprehensive and coherent volumetric framework. Heeding his agenda-setting call, many geographers, and in more recent years an increasing cohort of anthropologists as well, have been actively engaging with the volumetric, both in new research and in revisiting past work. The present collection of essays, involving over fifty scholars in both disciplines across two journals, is in many ways an outcome of this research zeitgeist.

Arguing that a volumetric approach to space allows for a dynamic understanding of terrain, Elden (2013, 2017) insists that thinking with volumes extends beyond the mere addition of a vertical axis. What indeed makes this approach especially fascinating is the entanglement of scales and materialities that is inherent to volumes. In a widely-cited text, Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters have proposed that the ocean represents an ideal spatial environment to challenge the assumed fixity and groundedness of space. The “voluminous, stubbornly material, and unmistakably undergoing continual reformation of oceans,” they write, is able to “reinvigorate, redirect, and reshape debates that are all too often restricted by terrestrial limits” (Steinberg & Peters 2015: 247). In a recent ethnographic study, Jerry Zee (forthcoming) makes a similar argument with respect to atmospheric flows that transport particulates across vast distances, thereby impacting air quality at continental if not planetary scales. Several of the contributors in this collection show that even the subterranean realm, generally assumed to be static and inhibitive of movement, is also a space of continual roiling and churning, with “solids becom[ing] turbulent under extreme conditions or at geological timescales” (Lord)—ultimately blurring the line between solid, liquid, and gaseous (Hein & Couling).

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In the first installation in this five-part series, we attend to the differences between cartography and volumes. An important challenge posed by a volumetric imagination concerns representability given that cartographic practices are eminently horizontal and therefore poorly suited to representations of depth. Geopolitical forays into vertical spaces such as the atmosphere or the subterranean have proven extremely challenging to represent, cartographically or mentally. From the God’s-eye cartographic view to which we are accustomed, the vertical axis collapses on itself and, once reduced to a single point, becomes invisible. Such challenges are typically encountered in vertical urban environments such as Hong Kong where the multilevel urban fabric makes it complex to map. Two points may share the same coordinates, but may be located on a different surface altogether (Wilmott 2017).[1]

Importantly, a volumetric approach also shines a spotlight on the abstract ideals cartography has conveniently relied upon, as showcased by six of the contributors to this collection. The two essays by Tim Ingold and Dylan Brady challenge common cartographic assumptions such as the abstract and disembodied notions of “ground” and “line.” In his contribution, Ingold contests the representation of the ground as a horizontal surface. The ground, he argues, is the actual continuous rolling up and turning over of material, leading lower and upper regions to be unremittingly inverted. The state is reliant on the ground as a fixed surface, but in order to establish sovereignty over volume, it needs to take leave of ground level. In a similar vein, Brady argues that lines are at best an imperfect abstraction, never as precise as they are represented. In their encounter with voluminous terrain such as mountains or tunnels, their very linearity forces them to confront three-dimensional space, and gain weight as a result.

Representability is an especially critical issue in the context of disputed territories. The border lines separating Israel from Palestine, for instance, are occasionally visible only with a cross-sectional view, where the land surface can be Palestinian territory while the subterranean space underneath and the airspace above are under Israeli control (Weizman 2007). In the case of the town of Uri, at the border between India and Pakistan in the contested mountainous region of Kashmir, bordering takes place in three-dimensional space. In her contribution, Aditi Saraf shows the complex and “incompatible but unexpectedly complementary” entanglement of threat, tourism, and trade flows sited at different elevations, generating visual-affective interference patterns resulting in rapid shifts of perspective. This spatial complexity, according to Jeremy Crampton, is perhaps best challenged through the metaphor of a vortex: in cities segregated by height, with “the price per square foot vary[ing] vertically as well as geographically,” the vortex mixes objects—but even more importantly it mixes ideas and experiences—often violently and suddenly. As a process of movement from one level of the city to another, from one segregated space to another, the vortex works against the grain of cartographic fixity, thereby providing new avenues for thought and change. Along similar lines, Paul Richardson deploys the metaphor of the eddy to trace the unpredictable, counter-intuitive, multidirectional, spiral-like, concentric, centrifugal, and centripetal flows that have defined the post-Soviet cultural and political trajectory of the Southern Kurils, a small group of far-flung islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

The highly visual practice of cartography is also a poor model for auditory, tactile, electronic, and other nonvisual forms of bordering. In her contribution, Ekaterina Mikhailova argues that terrestrial television broadcast is an excellent metaphor for the gap between ideals of territorial sovereignty and bordering practices. She shows that states are invested both in providing access to the entire territory over which they have sovereignty, and in blocking foreign transmissions. If gaps in coverage tend to be perceived as symptomatic of state weakness, broadcasting across the border has proven a powerful tool of propaganda and/or soft power (Min 2018, Peters 2018). But as Mikhailova shows, territorial and electronic sovereignty can never be coextensive: signal transmission is impacted by local topography as well as jamming systems (Tawil-Souri 2012), whereas borderland populations have been highly proactive in tapping into alternative news and entertainment sources hailing from across the border.  As James Steintrager and Rey Chow (2019) insist, sonic entities—in contrast to the visual—need to be “apprehended otherwise,” a point Lisa Sang Mi Min and myself have also made with regard to sound and tactility respectively (Min 2018; Billé 2018), and which others have explored olfactorily (Lammes, McLean & Perkins 2018). This is especially true with combat waged across smellscapes, as described by Feigenbaum (2017) in her study on teargas, or soundscapes, including those beyond the threshold of conscious detectability but with deleterious or even lethal consequences on the body (Goodman 2010).

NB: This text is a truncated version of the full editor’s introduction by Franck Billé. It will be published in five parts, introducing readers to each subsequent section of the series. The full introduction will be available when the series concludes.

Ground Tim Ingold

Lines Dylan Brady

Interference Aditi Saraf

Vortex Jeremy W. Crampton

Eddy Paul Richardson

Broadcast Ekaterina Mikhailova


Billé, Franck. 2018. “Skinworlds: Borders, Haptics, Topologies.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36 (1): pp.60-77
Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power,” Political Geography 34, pp.35-51
Elden, Stuart. 2017. “Legal Terrain—The Political Materiality of Territory.” London Review of International Law, 5:2, pp.199–224
Feigenbaum, Anna. 2017. Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today. London: Verso
Garrett, Bradley L. 2013. Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. London: Verso
Goodman, Steve. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Gregory, Derek. 2017. “Dirty Dancing: Drones and Death in the Borderlands” in Life in the Age of Drone Warfare, eds. Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 25-58
Lammes, Sybille, Kate McLean & Chris Perkins. 2018. “Mapping the Quixotic Volatility of Smellscapes: A Trialogue,” in Time for Mapping: Cartographic Temporalities, eds. Sybille Lammes, Chris Perkins, Alex Gekker, Sam Hind, Clancy Wilmott & Daniel Evans. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Min, Lisa Sang Mi. 2018. “Echolocation.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, June 27. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1450-echolocation
Peters, Kimberley. 2018. Sound, Space and Society: Rebel Radio. London: Palgrave Macmillan
Steinberg, Philip & Kimberley Peters. 2015. “Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33, pp. 247-264
Steintrager, James & Rey Chow. 2019. Sound Objects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Tawil-Souri, Helga. 2012. “Digital Occupation: Gaza’s High-Tech Enclosure,” Journal of Palestine Studies 41:2 (Winter), pp. 27-43
Weizman, Eyal. 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso
Williams, Alison J. 2010. “A Crisis in Aerial Sovereignty? Considering the Implications of Recent Military Violations of National Airspace,” Area 42(1), pp.51-59.
Wilmott, Clancy. 2017. “Surface.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, October 24. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1246-surface
Zee, Jerry. Forthcoming. “Downwind: Three Phases of an Aerosol Form” in Volumetric States: Sovereign Spaces, Material Boundaries, and the Territorial Imagination, ed. Franck Billé. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
[1]      With the earth’s surface getting mapped ever more precisely, with every inch accounted for, a British company has recently divided the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3-word address. what3words can pinpoint an exact location and direct a user to it—a very useful advantage for a country like Mongolia with little infrastructure and no street addresses. The system is however poorly suited to identify elevation. The section titles of this introduction are a playful critique of the app’s horizontal assumptions, and do not refer to any of the existing what3words addresses.